Food Sovereignty: When the market resembles a gigantic mythical sea monster

(Image: Cover of Hobbes' 'Leviathan') Mike Bourne tells us about his research project on the New Alliance, which is the focus of SPEAK's Seeding Change campaign, and why the free market is like a sea monster. Intrigued? Read on...

Leviathan. That’s the beast I’m talking about, and about 360 years ago it was the image chosen by Mr Thomas Hobbes to describe a form of government where people give up their sovereignty over certain aspects of their lives (the freedom to steal, for example) in order to make society work. Hobbes wrote about a few different types of Sovereign, such as a Monarch or a democratically elected government, but he never suggested that it might be possible for the market to fill this role*. I’d like to suggest though that the more pervasive the market becomes in society, the more human beings are forced to give up power over their own lives to ‘market forces’ over which they have little or no control.

Over the next couple of months I’m going to be looking at the ‘New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition’**, which is an initiative currently being pushed by the G8 to increase investment in agriculture in 10 African countries. The proposals usually include banning the free distribution of seeds, setting targets for increased fertiliser use, and making it easier for foreign companies to buy land. All of this is being pushed in the name of increased productivity as a result of a more ‘marketised’ system. As an aside it should be noted that the evidence that increasing farm size and use of chemical inputs leads to higher productivity is ambiguous at best. My work will be looking at the New Alliance from a different angle though. I will argue that it is one example of how for much of the world’s population ‘the market’ is the new Leviathan – an external force imposed on them by a highly questionable process of ‘consent’ (in the New Alliance we’ve seen very little engagement with civil society groups, and lots of engagement with business and governments), which then has enormous power over their lives.

This runs completely counter to the narrative some promote of the market as a naturally emerging system that doesn’t need to be imposed from the outside, it just needs barriers removed so it can flourish naturally. This is a case where in fact the ‘free market’ is perhaps the most planned economic system of all.

This is early days in my research, so I’ll try and keep you updated with what emerges, but the campaign to promote Food Sovereignty is far too urgent to wait, so have a look at the ‘Seeding Change’ campaign on this website, write to your MP about the New Alliance (get in touch with SPEAK for help) and spread the word!


* probably because, in Hobbes’ time, ‘the market’ was somewhere you went to buy groceries, not a global economic system

** initially for a presentation I’m giving at an academic conference, but I’m hoping it’ll lead into a journal article or two, maybe even a book? Who knows?